Bedouin-Arab Families

views updated

Bedouin-Arab Families

The word Bedouin is the Western version of the Arabic word badawiyin, which means "inhabitants of the desert," the badia. Technically, the term refers only to the camel-herding tribes of desert dwellers, but it has been applied in English to all nomadic Arabs (Kay 1978). The Bedouin-Arab presence extends to Egypt, Israel, Jordan, Lebanon, Saudi Arabia, Syria, and elsewhere in the Middle East and North Africa (Barakat 1993).

Traditionally, the Bedouin lived by raising camels, sheep, and goats and followed their herds in search of grazing areas. Beginning in the latter third of the twentieth century, pastoral nomadism became increasingly rare because of nation-states with closed borders and the rapid urbanization of the region's populations (Sharabi 1988; Fabietti 1991; Al-Krenawi 2000). As a result, the Bedouin have become increasingly sedentary. Only 5 percent of Bedouin still live as pastoral nomads; the remainder have settled in villages and towns (Al-Khatib 2000).

The Bedouin family, like other Arab families, is anchored in a culture-bound socioeconomic and political network. The largest unit in the Bedouin network is the Qabilah, or nation, consisting of several tribes (ashira, plural ashir) each with its own land and leader. The tribe is a union of extended families, or hamula (plural hamail). The hamula constitutes the major family unit. It is a patrilineal kinship structure of several generations that encompasses a wide network of blood relations descended through the male line. In the past, the hamula provided its members, who lived and wandered together and shared land and labor, with economic security and protection. With the loss of the Bedouin's traditional livelihoods, the hamula is less able to fulfill these functions. It still serves, however, as major source of identity and psychosocial support and social status. The nuclear family of parents and children is the smallest family unit. The nuclear family, hamula, and tribe are closely bound by extensive mutual commitments and obligations.

This social network is underpinned and maintained by a deeply ingrained system of values and expectations that govern the behavior and the relationships of the members. The key values are harmony, kinship solidarity, and hierarchy. The Bedouin emphasize cooperation, adaptation, accommodation, and family cohesion. Individuals are expected to show loyalty and responsibility to the collective, to place its good above their own, and to follow the rules and commands of those above them in the hierarchy (Al-Krenawi 1999).

Marriage and Divorce

Marriage for Bedouins has both religious and social significance. From an Islamic perspective, marriage legalizes sexual relations and provides the framework for procreation. From a social perspective, it brings together not only the bride and groom but also their nuclear families and hamail.

Parents or parent substitutes arrange most marriages, sometimes without prior consultation with the prospective spouses or over their objections. Since Islam encourages early marriage and childbearing, marriages may be arranged when the future bride and groom are in their early teens and, sometimes, when they are still children. There is no dating or courtship. A girl or young woman suspected of contact with a boy will be physically punished and have her freedom of movement and communication severely curtailed (Mass and Al-Krenawi 1994).

Romantic love is regarded as a feeble basis for marriage. Muslims believe that love should grow out of marriage (Denny 1985). The main factors considered in the selection of a mate are the character, reputation, and economic and social status of the prospective in-laws, followed by the character and reputation of the spouses-to-be. Preference is usually given to relatives. First-degree relatives receive first choice of a prospective bride, followed by other members of the hamula and tribe. Hence, many Bedouin marriages are endogamous.

In some cases, exchange marriages (badal) are made. These are marriages in which two men marry one another's sisters. Among the purposes of such marriages is to obtain a mate for a boy or girl with poor marital prospects. Often at least one of the parties in such unions agrees to it out of family pressure or a sense of duty.

The boy's family initiates marriage. It may be arranged directly by the families themselves or through mediators (Hana 1984; Moors 1995). In Islam, marriage is effected through a legal contract, which stipulates, among other things, the amount of the mahr, the dower, that the groom's family must pay. In Bedouin-Arab families, the mahr is given to the bride's guardian, usually her father, to purchase clothing and jewelry for her to start her married life. The jewelry serves as economic security for the wife in case of mishap. The mahr consists of a sum paid before the marriage and a larger sum to be paid only if the husband initiates a divorce. The latter sum is meant to discourage him from casting off his wife lightly (Moors 1995). The sum of the mahr varies with the families' blood relations and is lower for relatives than for outsiders.

Polygamy, which is permitted by the Qur'an (4:3), is practiced by a certain percentage of Bedouin-Arabs. Reasons for polygamy include pressure to take part in an exchange marriage; the illness or infertility of the wife, or her failure to bear sons or to meet her husband's sexual needs (Al-Krenawi 1998b). Among some Bedouin, polygamy confers prestige as a sign of wealth and prowess (Abu-Lughod 1986). Traditionally, polygamy served as a way to enlarge the family labor pool and also as a way of providing the protection of marriage for women when there was a shortage of men (Al-Krenawi 1998b). Its negative consequences include the unequal distribution of resources among rival households, and jealousy and acrimony among the co-wives and among the children of different wives (Al-Krenawi 1998b; Al-Krenawi and Lightman 2000).

Divorce is stigmatized and rare in Bedouin society. Unhappily married women are deterred from seeking divorce because the father is entitled to custody, whatever the child's age, and by the poor prospects of remarriage for divorcees, other than to an older man or as a second, third, or fourth wife in a polygamous household (Al-Krenawi 1998a, 1998b).

Family Dynamics in Bedouin-Arab Society

The traditional Bedouin-Arab family mirrors the structure and dynamics of Bedouin society. Like the society as a whole, the Bedouin family is authoritarian, hierarchical, dominated by males, and oriented to the group (Al-Krenawi 1998a, 2000).

The identity and self-concept of the individuals in the family are inextricably linked with the collective identity of the family, hamula, and tribe (Al-Krenawi 2000). The Western ideal of an autonomous, individualized self bears little relevance to the pattern of psychosocial development in the traditional Bedouin family (Al-Krenawi 1998a). Conversely, the honor and reputation of the family are reflected in the behavior of its members. Thus, if a family member is successful, the entire family enjoys the credit. If the family member violates social norms, the entire family loses honor and feels shame (Al-Krenawi 2000).

This interdependency at these basic psychological and social levels necessitates considerable self-sacrifice on the part of all family members and issues in a strong system of family control over all aspects of the members' lives. Major life decisions, such as who to marry, where to live, what occupation to pursue, and so forth, are determined with strong reference to, and often by, the nuclear and extended family (Al-Krenawi 2000).

Emotional expression is also controlled. Individuals are not permitted to express negative emotions, such as anger and jealousy, towards family members (Al-Krenawi 1998a). Unacceptable emotions are generally expressed indirectly: through metaphoric speech, acting out, or the development of physical symptoms that have no organic basis. Intrafamily communication styles tend to be restrained, impersonal, and formal.

Family roles and relationships are governed by gender and age, with males taking precedence over females (Al-Krenawi 1998a). At the same time, the honor of the family is also reflected in the behavior of its females. Because Bedouin-Arab view women as temptresses, women are closely supervised in order to preserve the family's honor. Their social contacts are traditionally confined to the family circle and, within the family, they are subjected to various degrees of segregation (Mass and Al-Krenawi 1994; Abu-Lughod 1986).

Interpersonal Dynamics

The father leads the Bedouin family. His roles are to control and punish, to maintain harmony and cohesion among the family members, and to represent his family to the outside world (Ginat 1987). He is expected to be a charismatic figure who commands subordination and respect as the legitimate authority in all family matters (Al-Krenawi 1999).

In contrast, the mother is perceived as the emotional hub of the nuclear family. Her role is to nurture and bring up the children and to take care of her husband. She often wields tremendous emotional power and may serve as a conduit between the children and their more forbidding father, conveying their messages and requests to him. Nonetheless, she has little public power or authority and is expected to defer in most matters to her husband, his parents, and the elders in his hamula (Al-Krenawi 2000). Her status in the family is strongly contingent on her bearing sons, who are viewed as valuable contributors to the family's economic and political strength. Bedouin culture holds the woman responsible for any lack of sons (Al-Krenawi 1998b).

Children are expected to show respect and obedience to their parents and other relatives, who, as in other Arab families, generally play a substantial part in raising them. Boys and girls are socialized separately into their future roles by the parent and relatives of the same gender. Girls are taught from earliest childhood to be submissive to male authority and to conduct themselves with the modesty and restraint required to preserve the family honor. In preparation for their future as wives and mothers, they are enlisted in helping their mothers in the home.

Boys are taught to be strong and brave, not to show weakness, to maneuver effectively within the social system, and to treat visitors with due hospitality. They are also taught their obligations to preserve the family honor, by guarding their sisters and by undertaking blood vengeance when so required (Al-Krenawi and Graham 1999). Although boys are given more responsibility than girls, the rules governing their behavior are more flexible. For example, boys are more readily permitted to socialize with peers outside of the home than are their sisters.

Alongside the stringent rules governing father-child relations, mediating mechanisms provide flexibility. Male relatives or grandmothers, whose age bestows respect and frees them from the constraints on younger women, may intervene in intergenerational disagreements.

Sibling relationships are also governed by the hierarchies of age and gender. Boys are viewed as more valuable to the family than girls and thus have more prestige and power than their sisters. The eldest brother has authority over and responsibility for his younger siblings. He is expected to serve as a role model for them and to assume the role of the father when the father is away. He is also expected to take care of his younger brothers and sisters throughout their lives. The other brothers are similarly expected to protect their sisters throughout their lives.

The Impact of Societal Change

The rapid shift within Bedouin-Arab society from a nomadic to a sedentary life in the last three decades of the twentieth century has resulted in sweeping social, economic, and political changes (Al-Krenawi 2000; Hana 1984). Bedouin men have left the traditional economic pursuits that kept them dependent on their families; Bedouin women have joined the labor force outside the home; and men and women both are becoming increasingly educated.

As of the end of the twentieth century, these changes have not substantially affected the values or the structure of the Bedouin family. Bedouin society remains a high context society, which means that it tends to emphasize the collective over the individual, and has a slower pace of societal change and greater social stability (Al-Krenawi 1998a). Thus, for example, despite the increased education of Bedouin women and their entry into the labor force, their social status in the home remains subordinate (Al-Krenawi 1999).

The changes, however, are opening up the once closed Bedouin family and giving rise to tension and conflicts. Sons and daughters who watch television and go to school are more exposed to the modern world than are their elders. When they bring home modern ideas, whether of freedom, self-expression, or dress, they often meet with strong disapproval and punishment. Young Bedouin are increasingly caught between the social demands for conformity to the community and family norms with which they were raised and their desire to pursue their own personal goals and aspirations. The price of the pursuit of self-actualization may be well be reduced family support and increased social isolation (Al-Krenawi 1998b).

See also:Islam; Israel


abu-lughod, l. (1986). veiled sentiments: honor and poetry in a bedouin society. cairo: the american university in cairo press.

al-khatib, m. (2000). "the arab world: language and cultural issues." language, culture and curriculum 13(2):121–125.

al-krenawi, a. (1998a). "reconciling western treatment and traditional healing: a social worker walks with the wind." reflections: narratives of professional helping 4(3):6-21.

al-krenawi, a. (1998b). "family therapy with a multiparental/multispousal family." family process 37(1):65-81.

al-krenawi, a. (1999). "social workers practicing in their non-western home communities: overcoming conflict between professional and cultural values." families in society 80(5):488–495.

al-krenawi, a. (2000). "bedouin-arab clients' use of proverbs in the therapeutic setting." international journal for the advancement of counselling 22(2):91–102.

al-krenawi, a., and graham, j. r. (1999). "social work intervention with bedouin-arab children in the context of blood vengeance." child welfare 78(2):283–296.

al-krenawi, a., and lightman, e. s. (2000). "learning achievement, social adjustment, and family conflict among bedouin-arab children from polygamous and monogamous families." social psychology 140(3):345–355.

barakat, h. (1993). the arab world: society, culture and state. berkeley: university of california press.

denny, f. (1985). an introduction to islam. new york: macmillian.

fabietti, u. (1991). "control of resources and social cohesion. the role of the bedouin domestic group." nomadic peoples 28:18–27.

ginat, j. (1987). blood disputes among bedouin and rural arabs in israel: revenge, mediation, outcasting, and family honor. pittsburgh, pa: university of pittsburgh press.

hana, n. s. (1984). the desert societies in the arab world. cairo: daar al-marif (in arabic).

kay, s. (1978). the bedouin. new york: crane rvssak.

mass, m., and al-krenawi, a. (1994). "when a man encounters a woman, satan is also present: clinical relationships in bedouin society." american journal of orthopsychiatry 64(3):357–367.

moors, a. (1995). women, property, and islam palestinian experiences, 1920–1990. cambridge, uk: cambridge university press.

sharabi, h. (1988). neopatriarchy: a theory of distorted change in arab society. new york: oxford university press

alean al-krenawi